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Nation & World

Author: Strong Fathers Make 'Fearless' Daughters

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Now we want to talk about books. In a few minutes, we'll tell you about some books you might want to look over if you're interested in the Native American experience. We have some picks for kids and adults.

But first, the news pages and programs are filled with stories of fathers who aren't there, or at least the consequences of fathers not being there - angry boys, love-struck girls with no direction, fathers in prison, mothers trying to make it on their own. But author Rachel Vassel wants the world to know that that is not the whole picture. Rachel Vassel celebrates the bond between father and daughter in a new book, "Daughters of Men: Portraits of African-American Women and Their Fathers." We're also joined by one of the subjects in the book, Dr. Helene Gayle. She's the president and CEO of CARE, an international humanitarian group.

Welcome to both of you.

Dr. HELENE GAYLE (President; CEO, CARE): Hi. It's a pleasure to be here.

Ms. RACHEL VASSEL (Author, "Daughters of Men: Portraits of African-American Women and Their Fathers"): Thank you. Great to be here.

MARTIN: Rachel, who gave you the idea for the book? Why fathers and daughters -not mothers and daughters or mothers and sons?

Ms. VASSEL: Well, I actually wasn't raised by my father, so I always spent a lot of time thinking about fatherhood as it relates to daughters and what daughters need from their fathers. I also have to say that when I was working at The Weather Channel, we had a panel discussion about women in the workplace, some of the challenges that women face. And out of the five women on the panel, four of them said that their fathers were their primary work mentors, which struck me as interesting. You know, I wondered if there was a strong connection between success in the workplace and having a strong father as a woman.

MARTIN: You talked to people from actress Sanaa Lathan to Radio One founder Cathy Hughes, Beyonce, of course, Dr. Helene Gayle, who we're going to speak to in a minute - all obviously successful women. Is that the common thread through the book, that behind every successful woman - not every one, but most -there's a strong, consistent dad?

Ms. VASSEL: Well, that was my quest. And what I will say is it's not guaranteed. I mean, if you don't have a father in your life, it's not to say that you can't be successful. But I do believe that children that have both parents around have a better chance because they have just a double amount of support, and also that men provide something to their children that women can't provide, and vice versa.

MARTIN: Like what?

Ms. VASSEL: Well, in this book, many of the women talked to me about their fearlessness, the fact that they knew that their fathers were behind them. And they didn't mention mothers in the same way. It was that their dads would pick them up if they fell. Their dads would protect them. Their dads would give them good advice or make things right. And I think there's a certain confidence with having a man or a father in your corner. And then for women, I think, another aspect of the father-daughter relationship that's unique is that many of these women looked to their fathers as examples for what kind of men to actually marry and feel that they have successful marriages because their fathers set a great example.

MARTIN: Dr. Gayle, why was it important for you to participate in this project?

Dr. GAYLE: So often, people talk about the role that mothers have played in the lives of daughters, but I think we often forget the roles that fathers have played. And I think particularly in this day and age where we're often talking about the negative of African-American men, I think it was an incredibly important project that really talks about the role that fathers have played in the lives of their daughters. And I think it's a chance to celebrate fatherhood.

MARTIN: Your father - in the piece that accompanies your photo, you talked about how your father owned a small - a barber and beauty supply store, and how he - there's a couple of things. I mean, it's kind of a community gathering place, because there weren't a lot of places that carried these products, and so he was an important resource for this community. But also that his other side was he was constantly helping people out, extending credit to people, visiting the sick after church on Sundays. How do you think that influenced you?

Dr. GAYLE: Well, you know, I think it influenced me an incredible amount. You know, a lot of people actually said that he was a poor businessman and that, you know, he wasn't as interested in the bottom line, always. He, you know, helped put us all through college, but I think he really cared a lot about giving back to the community, and I think he's got that message across to all of us. I think its part of why, you know, I do the kind of work that I do today because of the example that he gave.

MARTIN: You mentioned that your father didn't have a chance to go to college, but all of the siblings in your family have at least one graduate degree, and you have more than one. I wonder how his example - what example did he set for you in that regard?

Dr. GAYLE: Well, you know, he didn't finish college, but he did go to school, and he was a life-long learner. And so while he didn't have the same educational advantages, education was incredibly important and he realized that that was the road for all of us in ways to be able to exceed and excel, but also to have careers that would allow us to give back.

MARTIN: Rachel, I wonder whether putting this book together might have been painful for you in some way, to see other women having something in their lives that you didn't have.

Ms. VASSEL: No. You know…

MARTIN: Did you ever feel that?

Ms. VASSEL: I never felt that way. I always felt like, yes, this is the way it should be, and I just was so inspired by these stories. I think it just gave me a lot of hope for the future and for my girls, who have a great father. It was just confirmation to me that as a woman, realize that I was missing something with my dad not being a part of life, that hearing these stories kind of cemented the fact that it was important for me to reconnect with him. And actually, that's what happened. By the end of the project, I had reconnected with my father, and he was able to meet my family for the first time.

MARTIN: Is there something that you think you are getting from that relationship that was missing? Is there something that you think he's added to your life that wasn't there before as a dad?

Ms. VASSEL: Sometimes people will say to me, well, you know, he wasn't there in the beginning, so what's the point now? I just feel like if you can learn something, if that place in your life isn't filled by something else, then why not have it? And he's still is the kind of man who loves me as a - as only a father can. There's a special kind of love I receive from him that I don't get any place else.

MARTIN: Is there something that 0 Dr. Gayle, you know, this is a hot topic, because so many people grow up in single-parent households today. Do you think there's something your father gave you that your mother - a wonderful woman that she was - could not or did not? Something special you got from him as a dad?

Dr. GAYLE: Well, I think he, you know, I think they were able to balance each other, and they offered different sides. You know, what I got from my father besides the examples that he gave was just a sense of unconditional love that I think made a big difference for me in my life. I think whether you're fortunate enough to have both parents and know both parents, I think having both male and female influences is critically important in the development of a child.

MARTIN: You know what I found interesting? You mentioned this in your introduction, that the parenting styles that these men had were very different. But one thing I noticed is that many of the women talked about a time when they felt that their father rescued them or saved them in some way, in a way that was very meaningful, even though they didn't - I find that fascinating, because so often in this country, we look at independence as being a primary virtue - with, you know, do this on your own. You know, go back out there and, you know, make it happen on your own.

Some of the dads were that way. They said, look, if you've had a setback, pick your self up, dust yourself off, go on back out there. But there were also stories about dads, you know, sending the plane ticket at a time when the daughter was just at a low point or saying, you know, what you need? I'll be there. And they mention this over and over again, that their dad was there. And I found that interesting. I was wondered what do you drew from that.

Dr. GAYLE: Well, I think that we all go through times in our lives when we are vulnerable and we need someone that we trust and that we know has our best interests at heart to help us and to communicate with even, if you don't need them to do something specifically, but just to hear what you're going through and maybe give you a bit of good advice.

So I think that that makes you a stronger person when you have that person to fall back on that you can trust and that can help you in those difficult times. But there was a thread of fathers teaching their daughters how to be independent women, and so that part is there, too. But it's a balance. I think some of the men were focused more on independence, and some were there just to be a support. And then there were some that offered both of those aspects.

MARTIN: Is part of your mission here to contradict stereotypes that you think exist in the media about the effectiveness of African-American men as fathers or their willingness to be fathers? Is that part of what you're doing?

Dr. GAYLE: That is part of it. I mean, I have two brothers. I have a great husband. I had a grandfather that was very special to me. And when I see some of the images in the media that are supposed to represent black men, oftentimes I go, those aren't the men that I know. There are those out there, of course, in every group that are less than satisfactory, but I think in the African-American community, the imagery is very, very negative. And we do need to shine a light on the alternate view of black men.

MARTIN: There are so many women who aren't going to have this opportunity. They're never going to know who their father is. They're never going to, sadly, have that experience. Perhaps the father isn't known. I don't - I just wonder what a book like this - how it could play a role in their lives? You know what I mean?

Ms. VASSEL: I think…

MARTIN: I'm kind of a daddy's girl. So I'm kind of thinking about…

Ms. VASSEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: Friends of mine…

Ms. VASSEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: …who don't have that, you know? I don't know.

Ms. VASSEL: Yeah. Well, one thing I love about the book is that there are different situations. So we have dads who are married to their daughter's mom, and then we have some that are divorced but remained a part of their daughter's life.

And then Kelly Rowland's story is interesting because she was, you know, adopted by Beyonce's dad, Matthew Knowles. So she's an example of someone who really isn't in touch with her biological father, but someone else filled that void for her.

And I think that that's something that we can always look for, filling that void with another person - an uncle, a brother or grandfather that can play the same role or something similar.

MARTIN: Hmm. Rachel Vassel is the author of "Daughters of Men: Portraits of African-American Women and Their Fathers." She joined us from member station WCLK in Atlanta. Dr. Helene Gayle is the president and CEO of CARE. She joined us by phone from her office in Atlanta.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. VASSEL: Thank you for having us.

Dr. GAYLE: It's a pleasure to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.